Witness the Transforming Power of Small Groups

Small groups
Do you offer small groups at your church? How effective are they? (Lightstock)

If you think community is an important part of healthy church life, and I hope you do, then small groups should also be important to you. They are actually crucial to the life of any church. I'm not the only one who thinks so, and I have the research to back it up.

Be sure to read our research reports on Transformational Groups. I've written several:

Ways to Grow Your Group (Part 1): Five Ways to Connect with Disconnected People

Ways to Grow Your Group (Part 2): Seven Ways to Reach out to Your Neighbors

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Ways to Grow Your Group (Part 3): Reaching Neighbors through Group-Sponsored Events

The Right Culture for CommunityGroups Matter: My Interview with Eric Geiger on Transformational Groups

The Surprising Truth About Discipleship and Spiritual Disciplines

You can't build community by way of programming, but you can use a program to create a pathway through which community can happen. Maybe you should read that sentence again; the difference in the two is subtle. Programs do not community make. However, programs can create the pathway–the opportunity–for birthing community.

Depending on the culture of the church, community normally happens, or at least begins, in small groups of some sort, including Life Groups that meet in homes, discipleship classes, and Sunday Schools. However it is organized and participated in, believers intentionally put other things aside in order to be together, because life change happens via relationship. We join our lives together for the purpose of maturing in the faith and engaging in God's mission, both of which are key elements in effective and long-lasting small group strategy.

Small groups can become agents of both individual and community change when they are organized around, bathed in, and focused on living out the gospel together. When we are honest, open, and vulnerable with one another, there is opportunity to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2) and spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).

When we preach the gospel to one another in close-knit community, there is spiritual growth that changes us individually and as a whole. We can also begin to position ourselves with an outward focus and encourage gospel transformation in the communities outside the church walls.

As much as I love gathering with the whole of the local church for corporate worship, there is something powerfully unique about an intimate gathering around a living room or a small classroom or a dining room table that forces us to think differently than when we are in the sanctuary for a time of preaching.

Small groups, in fact, are where much of the theology taught in our pulpits begins to be fleshed out in conversation and action. If you want your church to be on mission, teach it from the pulpit and equip your people to wrestle with it in small groups. It's messy that way, but it's fruitful.

The obvious question is how many should be involved in groups. Well, it depends. Here are some suggested rules of thumb.

If you are in a home group church, compare your Sunday morning attendance with your home group attendance (if you count everyone Sunday morning, do the same for small groups, if just adults, do the same ...). Then, look at your ratios:

50 percent passing: Is a passing grade, just getting by

60 percent working: The small groups are working and getting to stronger community

70 percent thriving: Small groups are beginning to thrive and are more and more at the center of church live

80 percent excelling: Small groups are firmly established as indispensable in church life.

I'd add 10 percent to each of these numbers if I had a Sunday School based church because it is easier to come to church and to stay than it is to go on a separate night. I'd subtract 10 percent from each if my groups were primarily defined by mission as that's a greater challenge to participation (see my discussion about Missional Communities with Matt Carter for more on that here).

I would say that 50 percent is passing because it is getting to a majority, but all of the people who are involved in your church should also be plugged into small community in whatever form you offer it. Realistically, though, I don't think that 80 percent is an unreachable goal for churches that rightly emphasize small groups. I've been an interim pastor at a traditional church with 94 percent of their Sunday morning attendance in Sunday School.

Yes, that's a lot, and it's doable. Now, it is likely easier to grow the percentage of participation when implementing a Sunday School-type methodology, because it is more convenient for people than other methods.

Meeting before the worship service and offering childcare gives a distinct advantage over small groups at other places and times. Either way, churches should work toward a healthy involvement for the good of their people and the mission.

Set some goals, cast some vision, and work towards a greater participation in group life—move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles to see better life transformation.

By the way, Eric Geiger and I have launched a resource to help people start new groups. You can find more here. Tens of thousands of groups have already been registered.

Ed Stetzer is the president of LifeWay Research. For the original article, visit edstetzer.com.

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